Most witch trials in Orkney were held in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.
Witchcraft in Orkney possibly has its roots in the settlement of Norsemen on the archipelago in around the eighth century. Until the early modern period magical powers were accepted as part of the general lifestyle, but witch hunts began on the mainland of Scotland in about 1550, and the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 made witchcraft or consultation with witches a crime punishable by death. One of the first Orcadians tried and executed for witchcraft was Allison Balfour, in 1594.
2 Early trials
3 Later trials
The islanders of Orkney had a long tradition of belief in broadly construed forms of witchcraft, sorcery and supernatural creatures possibly stretching back to when the first Norse settlers arrived around the eighth century. Magical powers were accepted as part of the general lifestyle and were not questioned. Superstitious island farmers attributed poor harvests or the loss of their stock to the malevolence of witches. Gradually attitudes began to change; theologians suggested that those with mystical powers were devil worshippers and it was heresy. Components of local folk tales were associated with witches by ministers who suggested the alleged witches were working with fairies and other supernatural creatures. It was common for inquisitors to transcribe the word devil or demon in place of any appellation for a fairy an alleged witch may have used in their statement.
In Scotland witch hunts began around 1550; the parliament of Mary, Queen of Scots passed the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563 making witchcraft convictions a capital punishment. Although the Orkney archipelago was officially under Norwegian law until 1611, at which time it was abolished by an act of the Privy Council of Scotland, it had been held by Scotland from 1468 under the rule of Scottish earls. Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney, known as Black Patie, had control of the islands in 1594 at the time of the initial witch trials but later trials were overseen by James Law who took on the role of sheriff after he had been appointed Bishop of Orkney by King James.[a] In contrast to the mainland where the Privy Council oversaw trials, there are no records of it having any involvement on Orkney where, from 1615, the Procurator Fiscal instigated hearings in the Sheriff Court or they were heard